They Can’t Repay

Painting of a kneeling beggar

Around this time of year, college freshmen start thinking about big social questions. They sit in history and sociology classes and receive narratives and statistics about the underprivileged. They tend to contrast this to their relatively soft lives. Two dangers present themselves at this moment during the second week of class. Either these students won’t care about the problems and will be grateful to be secure, or they might feel acutely guilty at their own or their parents’ successes. And so when accosted by images of poverty, or by actual poor people, they tend to panic and are unsure how to respond. A Catholic understanding here could be helpful.

It is Godlike to do good to those who can’t pay you back. God has done things for us that we cannot ever pay Him back for. He washed the stain of original sin off of us in Baptism. He forgives all our offenses against Him in the confessional. And He gives us His Body and Blood in the Eucharist. For all of these things, there’s no way we can pay Him back directly. If a friend pays for your dinner, you can get theirs the next time. But with God, He has created us, sustained us, and made us His adopted heirs.

That’s all typical of God. He’s that way: generous, putting goodness in places where it wasn’t before. He gives knowing He’ll never receive adequate repayment.

The Gospels note one way of imitating God. They speak of how we adopted heirs of God’s kingdom can be like our Heavenly Father: we can do good to those who are unable to pay it back. We can participate in and extend God’s generosity this way. If you give money to a beggar on the corner, you don’t expect he’ll have that amount waiting for you when you come by the same corner the next day. Maybe you’ll get a thank you, maybe you won’t. You might even get a complaint: “Got anything more than that?” And so we are with respect to God sometimes. We are certainly beggars relative to Him. It’s helpful to remember that when we get annoyed at ourselves or another person.

Do good to those who can’t repay you. This teaching of the Lord clearly applies to the materially, physically destitute. But our magnanimous souls expanded by God’s grace ought to extend goodness to other poverties too. Spiritual poverty, St. Teresa of Calcutta pointed out, is far worse than material poverty.

For example, smiling at an unpleasant person out of love for God is a type of poverty alleviation. The poverty in this case is more emotional or affective, but you can still do good for that poor person, and without waiting for repayment. And this is an opportunity that students will always have, especially with the cast of characters one meets on a college campus.

God has done something marvelous for us, both individually and collectively, in creating us and saving us. We show our family resemblance to God by doing likewise for those who are poor in many ways.

Image: Vasily Surikov, Kneeling Beggar

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Br. Edmund McCullough, O.P.

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Br. Edmund McCullough is a native of Baltimore, Maryland. He graduated with a B.A. is Spanish and International Studies from Mount Saint Mary's University in 2009. He worked in campus ministry for two years before joining the Order of Preachers in 2011. On